In his 64th year, 54 of them spent on screen, Kurt Russell is still living a life that approximates the dizzy thrill of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. He’s a licensed pilot who used to play minor-league baseball and who currently makes his own wine. He’s been in a domestic partnership with Goldie Hawn since the two met on the set of the 1968 Disney movie The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, and they’ve been together since they started dating during 1984’s Swing Shift. Russell is also a hero to legions of Gen-Xers raised on well-worn VHS copies of The Thing, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China. With The Hateful Eight — Russell’s second 2015 western, alongside the soon-to-be cult classic Bone Tomahawk — the actor approaches his golden years with guns blazing and trademark swagger intact.
Here, we talk about risk, commitment and doing early-morning tequila shots with Tarantino.
What draws you to westerns? Has it simply been good scripts or do you have deep-seated genre love?
It was pointed out to me that I’ve done 50 percent of the westerns made this year [laughs]. It has to be some kind of a record. I’m ready to like anything that’s good. Bone Tomahawk was an excellent screenplay and had a real sense of authenticity. While there’s graphic violence, I didn’t feel like it was a horror show. I don’t get the horror context when it comes to Bone Tomahawk. I just wanted to see the movie made. It took us two or three years to get it going. When we finally got all the actors together, it turned out we would be shooting just in front of Taran-tino’s movie. The draw for Bone Tomahawk was a really good screenplay and that Richard Jenkins and I could have the opportunity to play off each other. It was just serendipitous that the two happened at the same time.
Does Tarantino still have that nervous, video-store geek energy or has he grown more sober on set since Death Proof?
He’s a little more focused. He still has that energy but that’s just him. On this one, his powers of control were greater. I believe that Quentin is at the peak of his game right now. He’s better now than he was on Death Proof. The Hateful Eight is Quentin at his very best. He’s just as much fun and just as wild and loose, but he’s more able to bring it into focus.
What pisses him off on set?
He’s very honest, fair and encouraging about what he’s doing as a director. What displeases him is laziness, not caring or being reluctant to try something. Boy oh boy, am I in cahoots with him on that. All that can happen is that it’s no good. Nothing matters except for the cut that’s in the movie. All you’re doing when you’re shooting a movie is putting shit in the can. The movie’s made in the editing room.
Have you always been a risk-taker?
There’s no risk-taking in acting. The worst that can happen is you can be bad. So what? That’s pretty low in my life on the risk-taking scale. I’ve been at the plate with runners on second and third and a chance to tie the ballgame. There’s 25,000 people in the stands — that’s taking a risk. In movies, you’re gonna look bad to whoever sees the movie and doesn’t like it. When I did Elvis some of my friends said, “Are you really gonna do it?” I said, “Why wouldn’t I? It’s a chance to try and play Elvis!” Instinctively you know when you can’t do something. When I go to work I feel like, “Yeah, I can do that.” Because of that attitude, I don’t know what would scare me away. When I read that an actor is a risk-taker, I think, “My ass! Let me put you at 30,000 feet in an airplane during a thunderstorm and I’ll teach you about risk.” When I look at some of the situations I’ve been in as a pilot, that’s a risk that matters. When it comes to social things and playing parts, I just want to put on a really good show and commit. Let’s forget about risk.
Did The Hateful Eight gang stay up late after wrap sharing war stories?
We did. What’s fun about working with Quentin is that after every hundredth roll of film, when we were working with a 70mm, he would have a party. No matter where we were in the day or what time it was, we would have a celebration. He has a real celebration and every party has a theme to it. It might be a Waikiki beach party and there was a different kind of alcohol for each one. They were an hour or hour and a half, and then we’d go back to shooting. Sometimes it was at nine in the morning and we’re drinking tequila out there in Colorado. It was about 10 in the morning and I’m thinking, “Jesus, I’ve got to get my dialogue down.” Quentin’s like, “Congratulations! We’re doing great!” He gives me a hug and, what, am I not gonna slug down the tequila? Sack up and have some fun! I threw that tequila down and had another one! He’ll yell out, “We’re gonna do one more. Why?” Everyone responds, “Because we love making movies!” He loves everyone there. It’s never self-indulgent. It’s about getting it as good as it can possibly be. It’s rife with a freedom of creativity.
Was there ever a period in your career when you felt like, “This is a slog. I’m only doing this for money?”
After Tombstone I didn’t know if I was going to continue working. I was really tweaked. I was bent and tired. I had to start Stargate right away after Tombstone, which ended up being really good. I was on a movie where the director had control. It was a whole different environment and I just had a really nice time on that movie. About eight years ago I decided that I was gonna be really selective about the things I do. Around the same time I got really involved with GoGi Wines, which is the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay that I make. I got really serious about it because I love good wine. I love the Burgundy region of France, so I spent a lot of time there talking with winemakers about the kinds of wine I wanted to make. Then I met these people in the Santa Clarita hills when I was working with Quentin on Death Proof who had some property and I thought, “This is pretty cool. I could learn to make the kind of wine I like to drink.” It was tough to get me out of the vineyard for a while. My overall attitude for a couple of years was that I’d just rather work in the vineyard than a movie set. I’m glad I did, because I took some time off and then Fast and Furious came along and suddenly I was having fun again.
What’s the secret to a successful relationship?
I wouldn’t know. Long-term relationships always get pointed to as something to achieve. I don’t know if it’s something that matters or is a realistic goal. Love conquers all. Until it doesn’t.